The candelabras shone on the glossy metal of their cups as they toasted, having shared their goodbyes and well-wishes for Laurel. The cups descended to their lips. That was, in fact, the first time Laurel tasted wine. He savored that first sip and it brought the excitement of the trip he’d take the next morning.
“You’ll remember all we talked about when you’re up north, won’t you, boy?” his uncle asked, patting his back with more force than he should. “All of it. I value your guidance,” Laurel answered and they shared a knowing glance.
“And I’ll miss you so! Write me something too when you write your uncle, will you?” Aunt Clara chimed in, shining him one of her kind smiles. “Oh, it’s heartbreaking to see you grow up…” Laurel held her hand gently as his uncle chastised her for her sentimentality.
“It will be a good opportunity though, being tutored by Wyvern... Especially for an aspiring young mage such as our prince” The court’s resident mage seemed to feel welcome enough to share his insight. Indeed, their castle folk were all quite close. Laurel would miss that feeling. “It’s nothing less than we should be offered. As long as you steer clear of all that black magic nonsense. Those Umbral Star scholars have far too much freedom to mess with things they shouldn’t. And you’ll be close to some prominent ones,” his uncle added, looking at him sternly.
Of course, they’d had that talk in depth multiple times. Their country’s relationship with their northern neighbors was hanging by a thread and the fact their prize academy flaunted black magic without a care wasn’t quite helpful. “Wyvern herself doesn’t dabble in that stuff, though, does she?” As soon as Laurel made his question, their resident specialist piped up. “No. Wyvern would be the crown jewel of any country. She’s one of the last honest great mages out there.” Most of the others at the table chuckled softly. “Ever the Wyvern enthusiast, you,” Aunt Clara smiled. “You almost sound treasonous at times, Everett.”
As the banter progressed, the intoxication brought about by the wine started lulling Laurel to sleep. The feeling was peaceful enough. Despite the fact he knew he wasn’t going abroad just to study and maintain cordiality, he felt quite taken care of and certain of the future.
With assurance that the trinity of regents would take good care of the Ashen Valleys in his absence, Laurel had a tranquil, albeit long, trip north. When he finally arrived at Lunar Bay's capital, Estella, all the excitement he'd stashed away in his chest bubbled up. They'd done their best to arrive in time for the Winter Solstice celebrations, which he'd known would be grand, but hadn't quite imagined the actual scale of. Children and adults helped each other hang lanterns along the clean streets; star-like decorations were strewn about, glittery and shimmery; food stalls marked the road to the castle, which became increasingly steep. It seemed like they'd been going up for a while. In any case, the Lunar Bay was famous for its enormous, continuous crescent-shaped terrain and Estella's castle sat right at the top, ever vigilant. It seemed like the castle doors were wide open that day; the plaza was bustling with life. Still, Laurel and his entourage were taken all the way to the hall, immediately swarmed by staff. They showered him with warm welcomes and compliments.
"I am utterly sorry that the Royal family could not come to your reception themselves, your Highness," a young woman said, instructing others to pick up his baggage. "They are unfortunately busy with-"
"The Solstice event, I'm aware. Don't worry yourself, it's cool," Laurel interrupted, which seemed to leave her dumbfounded. "May I guide you to your quarters then, Prince?" After a nod, she proceeded, walking through cold, spacious hallways. Laurel and the other servants followed, their steps muffled by lavish rugs. Chandeliers more exquisite than the ones from his home dangled from the ceiling. "I must inform you that Archmage Wyvern requested that you be positioned close to the Umbral Star scholars. She said that, considering your Highness’ purpose, being close to the Academy headquarters and the Umbral Library would be fitting…” the woman shook her head, but kept her voice soft. "Still, we can arrange accommodations more fit for a prince in an instant." Even though his uncle would have claimed Laurel was being insulted, he found himself smiling. "No, that's perfect. I've heard about Estella's library. All good."
The room he was led into was at the very end of a corridor; the window faced an enormous rectangular building positioned in the middle of a plaza; a dozen other windows such as his were turned to it in a circle. Must be the library. Laurel instructed them to drop his baggage by his bed and, as he stretched all the road-sore out, the woman who’d been guiding him spoke up: “Your Highness must be exhausted from the long trip, so please feel free to relax. If anything is needed, one of us will certainly be found down the hall. We extend cordial invitations to the celebrations at twilight…” He raised a hand and tried to put some kindness in his smile. “I’ll definitely be there. Wouldn’t miss it.” She started telling him where he’d be able to find his own entourage, but it was easy enough to dismiss everyone with a wink.
Being alone so suddenly was odd in the best way. Not once had he thought he’d be pushed to the far ends of some student dorm, but he was pleased. Should probably thank Wyvern for that once they met. All was good, except for the fact that the bed was much harder than what he was used to.
Before realizing, Laurel had drifted off to sleep. The nap was deeper and longer than it should have been, though, because when he woke up he was sweaty and it was already dusk outside the arched window. Great. No time to change clothes. He slipped his travel cloak back on and sprinted out of the room. Well, it wasn’t quite a sprint; that would be rude. As he made a break for the front garden, a servant in as much a hurry as he was caught up with him. “Your Highness?! No one showed up to escort y-” Laurel reassured him that it was cool and, as soon as he merged with the rest of the huge crowd at the front plaza, he realized he’d missed most of the Queen’s speech… Not that he minded oh-so-terribly. Actually, he minded even less when Wyvern walked to the center of the raised stage; that was the main event, wasn’t it?
Of course, he’d never met her before, but her legendary status made her easily recognizable. As she walked up front, her dress’ feathery, dragon-like tail trailed behind her, offering a somewhat bridal imagery. She spread her arms and the whole plaza was enveloped in a warm glow; colorful fairy lights shimmered into existence, obfuscating the many lanterns that hung from the trees and making the Umbral Star insignia on her belt shine. People started taking their coats off, so Laurel followed suit, amazed to find that the temperature was pleasant. The spell’s effects weren’t only visual, then.
“Let’s enjoy one last warm evening, shall we?” she beamed, making the audience vibrate as well. “Is that good?” Since everyone seemed to say yes, she kept going: “Good! We have some things to get out of the way before tea time… Our homegrown percussion band, The Quads, would like to put their show on and then yours truly…” she paused to splay her hand on her chest with a smile, “...is reading a poem by Siren.” She scanned the crowd for a moment, spinning her index finger and furrowing her brow. Her wrist was constrained by a splint. “Not to put him in a tight spot, but today we also commemorate the arrival of the Ashen Prince… Laurel Greyland? Mind a show of hands?”
Though he wasn’t quite presentable, he shot his hand up, complying excitedly. A light beam seemed to descend from heaven to light him up and make his sorry state obvious to everyone. “Good! You’re, of course, welcome to the stage if you’d like. Or maybe you’d prefer to have a song from The Quads dedicated to you?” A tad ashamed, he cupped his mouth and screamed back: “Oh, I’m good!” With a flick of her finger, Wyvern extinguished the beam, relinquishing Laurel to anonymity again. “Then, without further ado… The Quads!”
The Archmage took a few steps back and dimmed the lights that shone upon her, redirecting all the attention to the musicians who dragged their instruments frontstage. For some reason, The Quads were, in fact, five. Their performance was horrifying, a true cacophony of sound, but the audience still seemed to vibe with it. People threw their arms up, swaying side to side in sync. Laurel gave in to the peer pressure and mimicked them. After it was done, Wyvern walked back up and cleared her throat. “As promised… ‘Obscure Northern Star’, a sonnet by my little Siren.” That made Laurel’s eyebrows raise. Did Wyvern have a kid?
What followed was, as the title itself announced, an obscure piece of literature that the prince mostly tuned out. All he made out were bits about orbiting and the void or whatever. Fortunately, as soon as the entertainment was out of the way, everyone was guided further into the garden and sat at a huge picnic area. The warm glow followed them, keeping the surroundings pleasant. Before Laurel could fully enjoy the abundance of food, a hand brushed his shoulder lightly. “The volcanic valleys' crown prince himself,” Wyvern’s sharp voice greeted him; when he turned to meet her eyes, she had a smile as cheerful as the one she’d displayed on stage. Though his heart faltered, he kept his face cool. “I trust you’ve been given a warm welcome?”
“Yeah, the servants were very nice to me,” Laurel answered, perhaps with a bit of snark. “Heard. Sorry, it’s sort of an atypical day,” she made a wide gesture with the hand that wasn’t in a splint, “May I sit with you?” Having been granted permission, she sat on the spread towel, carefully folding her huge dress. “So you’re my exchange student, huh?” She made conversation while casually reaching for a cup of tea. “Though I haven’t really been informed of what it is you wish to study.”
“Magic,” Laurel answered matter-of-factfully, earning a chuckle from the Archmage. “Yes, but what field?” He pondered the question. “Not sure. Haven’t found my, uh, calling.” Wyvern averted her eyes for a moment, taking a sip of her red tea. “You’ve been described as an aspiring mage. Nothing specific you’ve shown an interest in?”
“People tend to, how should I say… embellish my skills,” Laurel grinned. “Ah. To be young and in the spotlight," she said, seeming a bit embarrassed. "In any case, you're obviously welcome among our scholars for as long as you'd like. I'll always find the time to assist you, but I'm assigning one of the councilor to you." That was somewhat disappointing, because, well, Wyvern had been a celebrity for a long time. Everything started to seem like false advertising. Still, she seemed oblivious to his dampened mood: "Would you like to start tomorrow?"
"Oh. Of course," he answered, picking up a biscuit. "We can meet in the library at eight, then. Sound good?" It did.